The Book of Mormon as a Reflection of Religious History

Dont-look-at-fingerThe dichotomy between believers and non-believers of the Book of Mormon (BoM) was simple for many years following its introduction into the sectarian religious scene. Believers believed it was a literal record of ancient American tribes delivered through Joseph Smith by God. This literal belief is what Marcus Borg would call natural literalism;* belief with little reason not to believe. Non-believers confidently asserted it was the product of a con-man, or perhaps several. It possessed no value whatsoever.

Two reflections can be made based on the above paragraph. First, the early BoM saga represents a microcosm of the intense debate of the early 19th century between skeptics (often Deists) and evangelicals/mystics. Second, the natural literalism which pervaded the early church is similar to that of Christians with regards to the Bible during the Dark Ages and much of Medieval Times.

While, admittedly, my knowledge of Community of Christ history in and of itself is limited, I think it is fair to assert that its reaction to scientific and empirical thought in the 20th century is reminiscent of the Deist reaction in the 17th and 18th centuries. For many, conscious literalism (or fundamentalism) became and has become untenable, even outside of the Community of Christ tradition. On the other hand, many Latter Day Saint traditions continue to assert such literalism. They ask a poignant question of so-called “liberal” members: Is Latter Day liberalism, like Deism, a halfway house on the road to rejection of the BoM?

First, conscious literalism is not evil, or necessarily wrong, at its core. Such beliefs can provide a rewarding life and fulfillment. I know, for many years, I was both a natural and conscious literalist. Like others who have become much more liberal, I have had to ponder the question posed above. The answer is no, it does not have to be. Additionally, the question assumes it is the BoM which makes the religion. For the rest of this post, I will recount how I have come to understand faith in general, and the BoM’s relationship to faith in the Latter Day tradition.

Faith, for me, is not in an object. Using a Buddhist proverb: I don’t believe in the finger, I look to where the finger points. In addition, the words of Paul Tillich summarize another element of faith:

“Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolic name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.”

Continuing a line of Tillich-ian thought, I do not ground my faith in that which is finite, as God, for me, is an infinite reality. However, I can use language and images of God to relate to that which I believe serves as the basis of being.

The finger of the Latter Day tradition, the BoM, can still play an integral role. Just as it can be viewed as a human response to God, time, and man in its own era, we can respond to it as well. By this I mean we can find where it is applicable to our lives, not necessarily as God’s direct word, but as relevant to the divine.

*See Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; I include several references to it throughout this post.

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6 comments on “The Book of Mormon as a Reflection of Religious History

  1. vikingz2000 says:

    If I understand what you are saying (and I may not) aren’t you skirting the real issue? The ‘history’ of the BoM–the ardently believed (by many) ‘true’ history–is supposed to be about an actual ancient people who lived in America who were actually visited by Jesus Christ. However, the disturbing issues with regard to the veracity of the BoM isn’t about ‘religious history’ as a metaphor or something ‘finger-like’, but rather a question of what is suppose to be ‘real history’ that a lot of people were led to believe in fact was, and consequently vested a lot of time and money to support this ‘reality,’ i.e., the one, true church.

    However, if the BoM is *not* an actual history, as the LDS church from its inception has always claimed, then any faith that comes forth from the LDS church is a sort of false faith; it is built upon the claims of a false and corrupt foundation.

    Sure, you can cherry pick good stuff from the Mormon belief system just as you can from any Christian and non-Christian belief system, but this isn’t faith in the truth; at best it’s just faith in what is seemingly some good and useful stuff here and there.

    • Jeff C says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post. Your points are entirely valid and have crossed my mind as well.

      First, and this is a terminology issue, LDS refers to the Utah church exclusively so far as I know. The CofC and a large percentage of other restoration branches did not come out of the LDS church.

      Second, I completely understand your modernist way of thinking: “If it isn’t true, is it really useful?” One of the points I have tried to imply is that I don’t think there is a single source of truth in this finite world we live in, especially when we are trying to understand the infinite reality of God. By finding metaphorical value in literature like the BoM, we can relate to the divine.

      Did Joseph Smith claim the BoM was an historical record? Yes. Did 99% of the people who believed in the Bible during the Dark Ages and Medieval Times (and many today) claim and believe the Bible was virtually inerrant, out of God’s mouth with every story being factually accurate? Yes.

      My view is that we can confidently assert that the above two presuppositions are untrue and premodern. Instead of looking at them as ultimate sources of truth, they can still provide value; the BoM as part of the Latter Day tradition and the Bible as an ancient source of divinely relevant wisdom.

  2. mark gibson says:

    I find many modern thinkers asserting “it’s more important what the BoM says than what it is.” But then those same thinkers proceed to dismiss it because they don’t accept it.

    I have spoken with investigators who don’t believe it’s ancient history and can find several validated prophecies using its date of publishing.

    You say Joseph Smith claimed the BoM as history. Why would he take such a great risk with all future scrutiny? My view is that the BoM is less than a complete literal history but far more than a product of imagination.

    • Jeff Cimmino says:

      Everything he claimed about the Book of Mormon as history was considered as virtual fact, both in a religious and archaeological sense. It was not until Cyrus Thomas published the first serious challenges to the worldview of Joseph’s era that the Book of Mormon came under scrutiny. Joseph probably didn’t think he was risking much at all.

      My position is not that it was just the product of Joseph’s imagination with the negative connotation attached to that theory. I think it is possible that Joseph, amid the strife of his family’s suffering and cultural tumult may have had some sort of experience which caused him to write the Book of Mormon as a means of connecting with God. And look at his success! There are millions who have found peace in the BoM and I think that is where the value lies. Not in history, but in the BoM’s ability to bring people closer to God.

      I do not believe I dismissed the BoM, though my views may differ from yours. Just as my idea of God is less traditional, I find my value in all scripture (Bible, BoM, Tao Te Ching, etc) in a different way. It is that way which I am offering up for others to consider.

      • I appreciated the sensitive reply and what I need to remember is that not everyone who is a Mormon identifies with, or came out of the SLC LDS church. Hence, I don’t really know how the CoC members view the BoM (literal history, a metaphor, etc.). I would have thought they viewed it the same way as most believing SLC based Mormons do, i.e., an authentic, sacred history of an actual people called Nephites, Lamanites, Jaredites, etc..

        Regardless, though, I don’t know how or why someone can remain a member of any (or most any) Mormon belief system in light of the fact that JS claimed the BoM was a true historical record, but in fact after you do a lot of serious, in-depth research about all of the claims, you realize it isn’t; rather, it’s a nineteenth century creation. Hence, on this basis, why adhere to a religion created by JS and his inner circle of conspirators who lied. Sure, there are those who will maintain that even if JS et al did lie, it was a pious lie to create or restore *the* or *a* church that Christ would want to see established in these modern times, and so it is Christ’s one, true church (this ‘one’ among many others ‘ones’!). Nevertheless, do you need the BofM to establish or restore Christ’s church? I don’t think you do. Do you need the Doctrine and Covenants and the PoGP? Actually, I think the Mormon church (the SLC one that I am familiar with) might be more Christ-like *without* these so-called other sacred (corporate??) works. The BoM condones murder (the story of Nephi an Laban), seemingly more emphasis on works (again, very corporate) than grace, and some other stuff that doesn’t typify Jesus of the New Testament. I think the New Testament as a handbook, or guide, is a far better resource for learning how to live a Christ-like life (my opinion, I realize).

        So, again, I just don’t get why or how people can at least call themselves Mormon (any kind of Mormon) now that we know the ‘real’ story, or the back story of Mormonism with regard to JS–his polygamy including polyandry, his peep stone in a hat nonsense modality for ‘translating’ the gold plates, the many differing accounts of the first vision, etc.. In short, and not meaning to offend (please note that I was once a *very* active SLC based Mormon), I just don’t understand how anyone can be religiously attached to this religion unless it’s for social or some other non-religious reasons (e.g., your boss is an active Mormon and you need to keep up appearance to keep your job, etc.) If there is some stuff in the BoM that you find religiously useful (and there is, as far as I am concerned, stuff in the BoM that I like), then fine, but why call yourself a Mormon, which really aligns you with JS who founded *his* church, which was supposed to be Christ’s one, true church, but in fact isn’t. Just call yourself a Christian and hold fast *only* to the New Testament as the principal, authentic history of Christ, and books like the BoM just one more of the thousands of books written only to testify of Christ. I think you can attend a Mormon church if that is to your religious liking, but I don’t think you are required to call yourself a Mormon (although if you associate with the group, you’ll probably be considered to be just like everyone else in it–monickers and most everything else that goes along with being a group member).

        Mark x says, “My view is that the BoM is less than a complete literal history but far more than a product of imagination” Okay, that sounds nice, or doable, or balanced, or middle wayish, but is that really postulating true religion? Couldn’t JR Tolkien have written just as an imaginative (or even more so) serious, religious, albeit fictional saga to bring people to Christ? I think he that kind of talent and expertise, but I don’t think he would declare that it came from God as direct magic-like revelation to establish ‘the one, true church’ of which he, President JR tolkien, prophet, seer and revelator, is to stand at the head it and be the ‘God of this generation and king of all the earth’.

        Jeff says: “….my idea of God is less traditional, I find my value in all scripture (Bible, BoM, Tao Te Ching, etc) in a different way.” Well, with this too, I hear you, but again is this postulating true religion, i.e., cherry picking whatever seems palatable to you personally? If it is, then yes, God is very non-traditional in that He doesn’t care what religion we adhere to so long as that religon brings us closer the Him–the God of universal love for all mankind.

        I personally can identify and go along with this nontraditional idea of God, but I ***know*** the top leadership of the SLC Mormon church wouldn’t (but as far as the CoC goes, I don’t know anything at all about their top leadership).

        In any event, I’ve gone this far so I might as well share with you what I currently think I am: ‘An inquisitive, multifaceted, dialectically evolving, mystically nuanced, formerly Mormonized, currently unaffiliated, pragmatic Christian of sorts.’

        And I’m not kidding; I actually tell some people exactly this as stated.

        So, go figure.

      • Jeff Cimmino says:

        Thank you for the thoughtful response.

        If you look at my description in the “Columnists” tab, you will see that we are not very different. I was once a very active member of the Utah church myself, and believe me, I struggle to find ways to apply the BoM to my life as well; that is why I have come to appreciate the CofC, because many of the members have been able to find comfort in a more doctrinally liberal setting.

        I don’t consider it cherry-picking what is good, because that denotes negativity in my opinion. I find wisdom from various traditions because it provides comfort and strengthens my beliefs. Regarding the New Testament (and Old Testament), much of it is similar to the BoM in a historical sense (ie not all biographical or literal history). The New Testament is heavily metaphorical the way I see it, and I find value in approaching it as such.

        My beliefs are far too nuanced to discuss in a reply, so I will hope that this as it stands is helpful enough.

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